A weblog by pogrzeba*net

PI Planning in pandemic times: Virtualization of big room planning events in scaled agile frameworks

In agile, human interaction is key. Cadence-based planning events – conducted face to face – are a crucial core of any methodical setup. Why face to face? Because we are humans, and with knowledge workers, direct info and knowhow sharing and a common understanding is a key factor for team work and efficiency.

In scaled agile organizations working with SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), planning and review meetings are important pillars of the agile team collaboration, delivery and enablement. Big room face to face events in SAFe like the PI Planning every 8-12 weeks – according to the number of defined Sprint cycles per Program Increment (PI) – are the heart of all cross-team collaboration. At the PI Planning, all team members from all teams meet onsite in one central location to align and plan their next cascade of 8-12 weeks in detail.

In pandemic times of Corona, team collaboration suddenly is forced to become more and more virtual, with teams needing to align all their work from home office – even in companies that were critical in the past with the option of home office for their teams. Virtualization is a challenge for even the smallest team – but how could we virtualize a whole PI Planning in SAFe with up to hundreds or even up to 2.000 participants? The simple answer is: it is possible, but like a marathon, it is feasible, but far from being easy.

Scenarios for virtualization

There are different scenarios for the virtualization of a PI Planning, from partial to full virtualization, where literally every participant would attend the planning event from their home office. Even in good-case-scenarios for PI Plannings in Q2 and Q3/2020, at least an accompanied virtualization would be recommended.

To evaluate what needs to be set up in a virtualized PI Planning, we should start with the principles of digital exchange. When I wrote my university thesis back in the 90s titled „The Virtual University“, I learned a lot about the media psychologic scientific concepts of eLearning – which starts with adapting two core elements from the real world to digital media:

  • Information and
  • Communication

Information: info-hubs as single source of truth

Virtualized information must be – in a nutshell – as accessible and effective as e.g. a paper Kanban board in a co-located team room. Nearly a quarter decade after writing my thesis, digital information sharing have become a mature standard of every team collaboration – Wiki systems, file sharing platforms like Confluence, Sharepoint and others provide full online access via browser to every essential information. 

The challenge with information sharing on such an extensive level like a PI Planning is to provide every participant with just the right amount of information, not to overload people with potential important information, but not needed at this specific point in time, with full transparency, accessibility and maximum overview. Clear information structures, navigation, cross-linkage is really crucial here. Define information hub pages on different level to make everything transparent, from PI Planning agenda, contact data, planning boards. 

Some specific ideas for info hubs for virtual PI Plannings:

  • Create one central overview space for every for Agile Release Train (ART) about the whole virtual planning with all core information, contact data and links to all boards and conferences
  • Keep the most crucial information and tool links just on top, like virtual boards, core roles contact data, virtual conference rooms, feature backlog, agenda / next session info, links to other ART info hubs
  • Define virtual boards on team level for
    • Planning board for features and stories on a sprint base
    • PI Objectives board
    • Dependency board
  • Derived from that, add further virtual boards on program level like
    • ART dependency board
    • Risk ROAMing board

For virtualized, de-located teams it is most crucial that all information is one central single source of truth. For that, not only information transparency is important, but a profound and deep preparation of Features, Product Vision etc. much more ahead in time compared to a “physical” co-located PI Planning.

Communication: As close as if face to face

Full virtualized communication and collaboration is a real challenge – the more experienced teams are with virtual team meetings, the better prepared they are culturally for non-physical human interaction. 

Digital communication adapts reality to reach as close as possible the communication experience and transfer quality of real-life communication – related to media and therefore type of communication. Meaning: Some tools are better suited for a full-blown virtualization than others.

Synchronous communication tools (like telephone or video conference) enable a direct, efficient dialogue and are closer to face-to-face interaction than asynchronous communication tools (like e-mail). On the other side, the latter are better suited for keeping up and documenting important details of a conversation than the former. Mixed forms like instant messaging combine the best of both worlds – what makes tools like Microsoft Forms or Slack a must-have and technical pre-requisite to enable proper, agile and efficient communication in a full-virtualized PI Planning. Pre-defined user groups for core roles / routines like Product Owners, Scrum of Scrums, Business Owners with Product Management etc. are a good way to build efficient sub-clusters of communication but also to channel the right roles into the right communication in time.

Video conferences: Virtual rooms with a clear “architecture”

When it comes to enrichment of communication – written, auditive, visual – of course, for an adequate human interaction, the most enriched media would be the best for a better communication. In partly virtualized PI Plannings where single teams collaborate physically and interact with other teams virtually, a good approach is to open a permanent live video stream between all rooms to share the physical mood between the teams, so that everybody can grasp  the ART’s virtual room. In full virtualized PI Plannings, this would not be possible. Here, it is crucial for every team to keep a close virtual connection within the team with a permanent video conference open to all team members. With every team member in home office, it is crucial to test the bandwidth in advance, especially with video, to make sure that core roles are well connected. 

Besides a permanent team stream to keep up collaboration of the teams during breakouts, on-demand conferences should be set up in advance to be joined by team members and other stakeholders for specific alignments. An effective way could be to align via Instant Messaging like „we meet in team room A.1 (where „A“ stands for the team name plus the number of the virtual room to join). Those virtual rooms should be aligned within a clear “architecture” everybody understands in an instant.

PI Planning Agenda: Insert flexibility and virtual buffer

The overall agenda of the PI Planning is completely orchestrated to the minute. In physical PI Plannings, the Release Train Engineer (RTE) moderates and timeboxes the orchestration of teams and individuals. In virtual PI Plannings, the timewise and contentwise orchestration is even more important, but can not be handled by just one RTE for a virtual group of an ART’s participants (from under 100 to up to 300 participants from my practical experience). 

At virtual PI Plannings, the process community of practice of RTE and Scrum Masters gets a very important role of keeping every virtual team together (handled by every Scrum Master), plus maintaining the whole virtual event (handled by the RTE). Strictly followed and orchestrated Scrum of Scrum sessions during Team Breakouts are massively crucial here, also with Product Management and Team Product Owners to participate.

Since in most of my projects, team members are knowledge workers, teams’ thinking and collaborating activities during planning sessions are fast and efficient when people meet in real life. But: Every aspect of communication gets slower when people meet in virtual rooms – the more asynchronous the chosen media, the slower the interaction. Information and knowledge need longer time to get from one’s brain into another’s brain. Therefore, the PI Planning agenda should best be spread timewise. For de-located PI Planning, the Scaled Agile Inc has set up a spread agenda over three days when teams would be in different time zones. 

In fully virtualized PI Planning, the agenda could be spread up to a 3-5 days planning event, providing the planning teams with up to 12 hours of team breakouts before they present their draft plans to their Business Owners. What could teams do that would be finished with their plan earlier in time? They could work on Story refinements for the first PI sprints or could do what teams do during the IP iteration.

To “win“ time in the overall agenda, some of the agenda parts could be moved to preparation sessions before the PI Planning, individually handled by each team. Sessions like Business Context, Product Vision, Architecture Vision or Planning Context could be pre-recorded and provided as on-demand videos to be watched by everyone individually before the PI Planning starts. This would be additional effort, but would on the other side take away some technical risks of live streaming.

Agenda sessions like Plan Reviews or Management Review should be conducted as video conferences with a proper interaction channel so that the crucial dialogue between Product Owners (PO) and Business Owners (BO) about the team’s planning could be conducted as efficient and qualitative as possible. Important: This dialogue and commitment between PO and BO is the core of the agility within the PI Planning and the very heart of SAFe.

Reaching the readiness for a virtualized PI Planning

Virtualized PI Planning need to be well-prepared to have one single source of truth. Preparation of cross-team dependencies is important here. Also helpful could be a Pre-Planning with Business Owners in advance to the virtual PI Planning. 

Besides the immense preparation work to get to an ART backlog as the single source of truth, it is crucial that during the event, a number of supportive roles are present and active. Next to RTE and Scrum Masters who run the orchestration of the event, additional roles would be necessary: 

  • for technical support on video conferences and the information hub and instant messaging tool chain
  • for support desk per team just to get to the right people in a short time when needed. This could in theory be maintained by the Scrum Master, but in a virtual team situation, the Scrum Master would be blocked with just orchestrating the whole team and agenda

A chance within the crisis

A partly or fully virtualized PI Planning is a big culture change to any agile organization. The given situation within the Corona crisis marks – next to all human, social and economical challenges and damage we are facing – also an opportunity to a cultural growth and enhancement towards more flexible and broader digital collaboration, still with humans and their communicational needs in the center.

For all of us being currently in scaled agile team facing the challenge of virtualizing their big room agile events: Let’s keep up our agile mind-sets, our pro-activity, our willingness for continuous improvement. In this challenge, we have the chance to enhance the way we work as humans in the digital age.

// Dirk Pogrzeba / Agile Coach & SAFe SPC / March 2020.